Taiwan's leader escalating tensions, angry China says

Over weekend, president said he supports right to hold independence vote

August 06, 2002|By Michael A. Lev | Michael A. Lev,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BEIJING - China accused Taiwan yesterday of upsetting the delicate political equilibrium that keeps the two sides at peace, claiming that remarks by Taiwan's president about a referendum on the island's future represented "a serious incident" designed to "split China."

While refraining from making a direct military threat, China warned that Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's apparent advocacy of independence would "lead Taiwan to disaster."

The estranged political relationship between China and Taiwan is marked by consistent tension, even as their economies have become intertwined, but the verbal sparring of the past few days is unusual because Chen appeared to go a step further in defying Beijing.

Chen's speech by video conference Saturday to supporters of Taiwanese independence in Tokyo was sensationalistic and carefully scripted. He said that it is "a basic human right" to hold a referendum on Taiwan's future and that there is basically "one country on each side" of the Taiwan Strait. A few days earlier, Chen had said that unless China responded to Taiwanese good will, Taiwan would "go its own way."

The repercussions, or even the political intent, of Chen's words were not clear because the rhetoric both sides use is often vague. Chen did not specify that he was advocating a referendum on independence.

But China's tough reaction made Taiwan edgy. The Taipei stock market dropped 5.8 percent and a government official in Taipei backpedaled from the president's comments, telling reporters that there has been no change in policy.

"We do not want the independence and sovereignty we enjoy now to be destroyed or changed," said Tsai Ing-wen, the island's top official for China policy, insisting that Taiwan had no plans to seek a permanent split from China. "We will pursue these things in a practical and flexible way."

Taiwan broke from China in 1949 when the Communists took control of the mainland, but Beijing has never relinquished its claim on the island and has threatened to invade if Taiwan declares independence. While Taiwan has averted a conflict by keeping its identity fuzzy, Beijing does not trust Chen's political party because it has advocated independence. Any talk from Taiwan that suggests the island is a separate nation is considered an outrage by Beijing.

No progress has been made toward normalizing political relations in recent years because China insists that Taiwan recognize there is only "one China" before holding talks, a demand that Taiwan rejects. In the meantime, Taiwan has grown more comfortable operating separately as a capitalist democracy.

The United States takes China's threats seriously and provides arms to Taiwan. But out of deference to the mainland, Washington gives diplomatic recognition only to Beijing.

Most Taiwanese accept the status quo, which gives them political and economic freedom but without the symbol of independent statehood and at the heavy cost of military tension with China.

Analysts said Chen's comments appeared to reflect his frustration with the lack of progress in political discussions with Beijing since he took office in 2000 even as Taiwan was drawn closer into China's orbit through big investment in mainland factories.

The timing of his remarks seemed calculated to tweak Beijing, whose leaders are attending an annual summer political summit, as well as to rally support in Taiwan for Chen's political party ahead of local elections in December. Chen will face re-election in 2004.

Chen's remarks got China's attention. "The sovereignty and integrity of China can't be separated," said Li Weiyi, a spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office said in Beijing. Li said Chen's speech "will seriously sabotage relations between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait and affect peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region."

Michael A. Lev is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.